Rex Early gave me one of the greatest and, alas, most unprintable quotes of my career.
It came on Election Day in 1996. In that race, Indiana Lt. Gov. Frank O’Bannon, a Democrat, ran against Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, a Republican, to become governor.
Come Election Day, O’Bannon and Goldsmith were locked in what was presumed to be a close race.
Early called me for some reason and I asked him for his take on the campaign.
His answer wasn’t just off-color. It was obscene—so filthy that I couldn’t then and can’t now possibly paraphrase it to make it publishable.
But it also was on point.
“Rex,” I asked him, “can you rephrase that in some way so I could use it?”
“Nope,” he said, then cackled and hung up.
There was a reason he handled the question the way he did.
He didn’t much care for Goldsmith and wasn’t going to offer the guy who had beat him in the May primary any help.
O’Bannon was a friend of Early’s, but he also was a Democrat. Rex Early, who had served as Indiana GOP chair, was as partisan a Republican as ever walked the earth.
That meant, no matter how much he might like O’Bannon personally, Early wasn’t going to provide the Democratic nominee for governor with any aid and comfort on Election Day.
So, Early took a journalist over the hurdles—and had a little bit of fun doing it.
That was a large part of Rex Early’s appeal.
He was a throwback to an earlier era of American and Hoosier politics, a relic of an age in which bare-knuckle brawlers laughed and joked while they traded shots.
Early was in the tradition of the legendary Dick Tuck, a famed Democratic trickster who bedeviled Republicans for years.
Tuck’s most famous stunt came in the 1960 presidential election, when Republican Richard Nixon ran against Democrat John Kennedy.
Nixon’s slogan that year was “Nixon’s The One.”
Tuck hired a group of pregnant women to show up at Nixon’s rallies. The mothers-to-be marched in a circle—where the cameras, of course, could see them—holding signs that said, you guessed it, “Nixon’s The One.”
Rex Early had the same sort of puckish spirit. He looked, when the spirit of political conflict animated him, like a demented cherub, his round face filled with glee as he figured out new ways to cause Democrats trouble.
Not quite two years after that 1996 Election Day, I ran into him in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant. He was pulling some campaign signs out of the trunk of his car.
This was the 1998 election season.
Democrat Evan Bayh was running for the U.S. Senate. Bayh was going to win in a blowout.
A fringe candidate named Bobby Hidalgo Kern had won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives in a solidly Republican district.
Hidalgo had a record of changing his name, impersonating other people and telling tall tales. His presence on the ballot so embarrassed Democrats that they sought to have his name removed legally.
The signs Early pulled out of his trunk said:
I asked Early where he got them.
“Oh, I had them made myself,” he cackled. “Just trying to give my good friend Evan a little help. I think he needs it, don’t you?”
Rex Early died a few days ago. He was 88.
I hadn’t talked with him much in recent years.
Occasionally, though, he would call about a piece I’d written.
He said I was a good writer.
“So good,” he told me, “that I get all the way to the end of the piece before I realize I don’t agree with a single damn thing you’ve said.”
There have been Indiana political figures who made more of an impact than Rex Early did.
Few, if any, of them, though, had his zest for the roguish street theater of campaigning.
And none of them made it as much fun.
May he rest in peace.